By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson
The two young men of color walk through the gallery transfixed. There is so much to see and so little time to see it in; no docents handy to provide a frame, no earphones to squawk on about context and artist’s intent. The trip from their South L.A. school to the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard is, figuratively, a world away. As the first car-euphoric corridor in Los Angeles, Miracle Mile still retains its sheen. The museum’s multi-million dollar exhibits and au courant architecture showcase the pinnacle of Western culture—from classic to modern to contemporary avant-garde. The wing that the students walk through is the brain child of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, an ethereally lit sanctuary that brings them face-to-face with artist Glenn Ligon’s anatomy of black otherness. Ligon’s exhibit beckons with written evaluations from his elementary-school teachers. Their comments range from praise to quizzical disappointment. One implies that he is squandering his potential. Another pronounces that he has insufficient “black consciousness.” As records of one student’s arc, they are unremarkable, inviting a voyeurism that only piques interest in the context of the artist’s success. However, as grade-school primers of the genealogy of Ligon’s marked body and, implicitly, that of all black students, they are deeply moving.
In the art gallery, time is suspended. It is crafted as a hermetic space, a rebuke to the outside world where quiet contemplation is a rare commodity, fast becoming the province of the super rich. At this particular exhibit, guards of color stand silently at the ready. There is a black presence stationed in every room, a reminder of the invisibility of people of color in the high-flying corporate art scene. With their stiff uniforms and stoic expressions, the guards both comment on and perform the authority of the museum. They are there and not there, breaking from the tedium of their posts to remind students to put away their cell phones and refrain from taking pictures. They protect the secular sanctity of the gallery space through the veneer of enforcement, adding another layer of seeing and surveillance.
What do the students see in a culture in which they are trained to view art and aesthetics as the province of white geniuses? How do they navigate seeing in a culture in which the vision of white geniuses defines universal standards of beauty, value, goodness, and human worth? How do they learn, as Carter G. Woodson says, to breathe, swallow, and regurgitate the template of white universal subject-hood as sacred creed and covenant? How do they learn—how did they learn—to become blind to themselves, to see themselves as the Other?
The politics of seeing are part of what drives God lust. God provides a blank canvas for all fears, anxieties, hopes, ambitions, and dreams. He/she/it becomes the tabula rasa for the dreamer, the universal fail-safe for the fucked-up, the crushed, the abject, and the abandoned. In an intensely capitalistic, racially segregated culture, God-dreaming is a kind of art-making. God is closely tied to self-making and invention. It’s a realm that offers both the illusion of agency or control and the conceit of subjection.
Ligon’s show includes a re-examination of the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe Black Book exhibit from the 1990s. Photo after photo of naked black men sprawl next to quotes from commentators, critical theorists, and art mavens. The quotes weigh in on the public blasphemy of eroticized black male bodies, musing about whether Mapplethorpe’s images were exploitative. The comments run the gamut from appreciation to outrage, many of them conceding the ambiguity of representation and desire. Interspersed with the provocative poses of the mostly taut, virile young men, Ligon’s arrangement of the quotes underscores the ways in which the black body has always existed as contested space, as politicized. In an era in which mass incarceration and criminalization have become the predominant media for black embodiment, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are even more difficult to view within the lens of aesthetic pleasure. Mapplethorpe’s identity as a prominent white gay male photographer cannot be separated from the photos’ reception. Nor can his identity, power, and privilege be distanced from the tragic downward spiral of his black gay subjects, many of whom died of AIDS. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a black gay photographer gaining intimate access to the lives of white men for a similar photo essay. Heady pronouncements of colorblind equality are even more farcical in the context of the segregated art world, where artists of color are routinely ghettoized into “ethnic” shows. But art-making has an especially critical relationship to knowledge construction and human value. Who has the authority to make art, whose art will be considered as “great,” canonical, or universal is deeply connected to the standards of what is worth being seen.
Glenn Ligon’s “Notes on the Margins of the Black Book” (1991-1993), based on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Photo: International Center of Photography)
In the twelve-plus years since Ligon’s original Mapplethorpe exhibit, and fifteen-plus since the book’s publication, the art world template for the white genius as all-seeing and all-powerful has not changed. What has changed during this period is that HIV/AIDS has become a leading cause of death for young African Americans and mass incarceration has been deemed the “New Jim Crow.” Against this backdrop, God-lust amongst African Americans has morphed into a more fevered, strategically public practice. It’s not uncommon for young blacks to retort that some wayward person should get “right with God.” It’s rare to go to a black public event that isn’t kicked-off or concluded with a prayer from a local pastor. On TV shows like CNN’s Black in America: Silicon Valley, scenes of black folk bowing their heads and joining hands in prayer before a stressful event are pro forma. Black NFL players like Kurt Warner and coaches like Tony Dungee routinely attribute their success on the field and in life to God’s co-piloting. Over the past several years some Black churches have even declared Halloween a new “Satanic” ritual, offering their own kid-friendly, fall-themed festivals as suitably God-fearing alternatives. T-shirts and paraphernalia with Scripture and religious references flood the streets in predominantly black communities, where disposable income is an oxymoron for most.
Embracing, invoking, and bowing down to God have become shorthand for achieving upward mobility. In Essence magazine, Tasha Smith, a popular actress and fixture in Tyler Perry films, reflects on her journey to success. This particular actress is habitually cast as the kind of ball-busting Sapphire alpha men love to hate and white women love to fetishize. Smith’s specialty is channeling the hand-on-hip, tell-it-like-it-is, keepin’-it-real “bitch” who is never afraid to slice and dice her man in a high-octane public throwdown. Consequently, the reader is “shocked” to learn that she was once an atheist—frustrated, adrift, and emotionally scarred by a traumatic childhood. It’s implied that her lack of faith was a kind of spiritual albatross. As told to Essence, her subsequent transition to a God-fearing woman of faith hastens her rise to fame, wealth, love, and redemption via that rarefied cultural vehicle—the Tyler Perry film. The profile on the actress assures us that giving one’s life/fate over to God is an authentic rite of passage, a naked reclamation of self in the midst of a cold spiritual wilderness. God enables vision, and, ultimately, upward mobility. Godlessness signifies rudderlessness and absence of self-control, a potentially fatal flaw for a black woman trying to bootstrap to a moral life. Being a “good black woman” is defined by masochism. It is only through the crucible of self-sacrifice, by extending one’s faith until it hurts, that redemption can be achieved.
Witness: an acquaintance experiencing extreme economic hardship pledges to lay her life down to God after an email solicitation yields a gift of $50. The “ask and ye shall receive” regime of the prosperity gospel has become the cult of true blackness. On the surface it’s a rebuke to black invisibility, a bird flip to a dominant culture that revels in the myth of black downward mobility driven by lazy blacks shuffling from government handout to government handout.
If God is Black America’s co-pilot, then what does that say about the landscape of 21st century United States, where black wealth is virtually nonexistent? What does it betray about a country where residential segregation of African Americans and Latinos has become more prevalent now than during the 1980s? It’s tempting for some religious skeptics of color to dismiss these displays as indicative of backward thinking from uneducated black folk. But, as the faith-based pandering of President Obama and other politicians demonstrate, education and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. Just as there is no shortage of storefront churches in poor black communities, there is no shortage of mid-sized to megachurches in middle-to-upper-middle-class black neighborhoods. Faith and religiosity don’t exist in a political, social, or economic vacuum. Nor are they static. One female interviewee from the 2010 gospel documentary Rejoice and Shout acknowledged that Christianity was originally the “white man’s religion” but dismissed the claim that blacks were brainwashed or indoctrinated. The gender pageantry of the Black Church is on vivid display in the grainy archival footage from this fascinating documentary (and document) of black life in the early 20th century. Black women getting the Holy Ghost crowd the church aisles, writhing, gesticulating, and testifying to the Lord’s transfixion. Every now and then the camera captures a swooning male congregant, but, for the most part, the men sit upright and respectable in the pews as the reverends hold sway in the pulpit. It’s implied that performance and possession—the raw abandon of getting the Holy Ghost—are a woman’s medium, a manifestation of their natural sexual otherness, their closer relationship with the body, and, thus, their irrationality. Here, religious performance, the collision between sacred and secular, becomes a kind of artistry. Ecstatic religious expression is portrayed as a powerful device in a social context that does not afford poor black women agency, creativity, or visibility.
Sikivu Hutchison’s book, “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” is now available.